Marjorie L. Burgess Biography
Corrections official, poet
Marjorie Laura Burgess had a long career in the State of New York corrections department. She began work after her children were mostly out of the house and steadily advanced in rank. She became a middle-aged college student, earned several degrees, and continued to further her career. Yet these accomplishments alone might not have earned Burgess her listing in Who's Who in America. Rather it was a project she undertook after retirement that attracted notice: she wrote poems that served as vessels for the thoughts and feelings of the women she had watched over for so many years as a prison guard.
Born November 24, 1928, in Whitakers, North Carolina, Burgess was the son of Benjamin and Laura Harrison. She married when she was 20, and she and her husband Bonus David Dixon had three children, one of whom died young. She and Dixon divorced in 1970, but well before that she was on her own with her children Terence and Michael, and had to find a way to support them. Now living near New York City, she took a job as a corrections officer at the New York state facility in Bedford Hills, in Westchester County, in 1959. In 1967 she was promoted to sergeant.
Two months after her divorce, she married William A. Burgess. That marriage did not last either (it ended in July of 1976), but while she was married Burgess decided to better her chances of promotion and of being able to support her family by going to college. She earned an associate's degree from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City in 1971, going on for a bachelor's degree from the same institution the following year and for postgraduate studies from 1973 to 1975. She continued to attend law enforcement training seminars throughout her career. Her studies were rewarded with a promotion to corrections lieutenant in 1973 and to captain in 1982. She retired in 1990 as the highest-ranking African-American woman in the corrections department.
Like other prison guards, Burgess was sometimes disturbed by the environment in which she spent her days. Prisoners talked about their lives and how they had gone wrong, and often Burgess heard stories of violent worlds that made her think about how common problems in society could lead an ordinary person into a life of crime. In the prison laundry room, one woman told her about the murder she had committed: the woman had killed her boyfriend after he bragged about raping her 13-year-old daughter, a quiet girl who only liked to read. The woman bought a shotgun and emptied both barrels when her boyfriend came home from work.
"Unless you walk in a person's shoes, you don't know if you would have wound up in the same place they did…. I don't know what I would have done if it were me," Burgess told Antonio Olivo of New Jersey's Bergen County Record. Another woman named Monique V. Slate, an AIDS sufferer who had grown up in foster homes, found out before she died that an older prisoner in her cellblock was her mother. The older woman, however, refused to have anything to do with her.
Many other guards could tell similar stories, bottling them up inside as they brooded over them after leaving work. Burgess, however, took another step. She wrote them down in poetic form, as a kind of testament to the lives of the women she had encountered. "Who took away their innocence and dreams? Leaving behind children like solid steel beams," she wrote (all quotations from Burgess's poetry come from her book Walking on the Road of Life, as quoted by the Bergen County Record).
Sometimes in her poems she spoke in the voices of the prisoners themselves. Her rendering of one inmate spoke of "loneliness, desolation, and broken dreams. I love, I love; I lost, I lost; and that's forever!" In other poems she stood outside the life of the prisoner and memorialized it. "Monique V. Slate at twenty-two, God suddenly looked down at you," she wrote. "He thought of the life you had, and, to Him, it seemed pretty bad…. God wanted to show you the extent of his love, so he took you to His home above."
At first Burgess wrote only for herself, as a way of relieving the stress of her work environment. The poems accumulated in a locked drawer. After she retired, though, she began to wonder whether they might bring comfort to other prisoners if they could be published somehow. The path to the fulfillment of Burgess's dream came when she met Dock Russell, a coordinator at the Martin Luther King Jr. Senior Center in Hackensack, New Jersey, of which she was a member. Russell was the founder of an all-volunteer organization called Kuumba, the Swahili word for "creativity."
Kuumba was a perfect match for Burgess; the organization specifically sought out nonprofessional writers who had set down their thoughts with no thought of profit, and assisted them in bringing out their work in book form. Russell found out about Burgess's poems and encouraged her to publish them, telling her that no one would hear them if nobody knew that they were there in Burgess's drawer. Walking on the Road of Life appeared in 1997 and was marketed to bookstores throughout northern New Jersey. In 2000, Burgess published a second book, Life! It's More Than a Notion. That book contained more prison poems but also reflected with compassion on other people beset by misfortunes in such poems as "Harshly Treated Children."
Serving on the Bergen County Senior Advisory Board and keeping busy with various volunteer projects around Hackensack, Burgess gained recognition for her creative activities. She enrolled at the Institute for Learning in Retirement at Bergen Community College and was nominated by the institute's director, Dean Lois Marshall, to receive one of the school's first annual African-American Leadership Awards at a banquet attended by more than 300 people, and a campus press release describing her honor termed her "an accomplished poet, professional, and community hero."
Record (Bergen County, NJ), August 15, 1997, p. L1.
"African-American Leadership Awards in Bergen County to be Presented to Five Outstanding Leaders," Bergen County Community College, www.bergen.cc.nj.us/bergen_news/newsfiles.aaleaders.asp (October 4, 2005).
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Bergen County Community College's annual report for 2002.